Silence, Please (Or, How Worship Leaders Are Losing a Golden Opportunity)

By Erika Hewitt

“Everything around us and within us is made up of energy particles that are woven
together into a universal tapestry. Since everything is connected, there is an intimate relationship between the atomic space around and within me, and the atomic space around and within you — regardless of where we are.”
—Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, neuroanatomist

“Injection locking and injection pulling are the frequency effects that can occur when a
harmonic oscillator is disturbed by a second oscillator operating at a nearby frequency.”
—Wikipedia entry

Experienced worship leaders will tell you that on some Sundays, our people arrive to worship in such extravert mode that their lively chatter fills the room, while on other mornings our people arrive subdued and reflective, and the worship space feels heavy with anticipation. We worship leaders hold the space for whatever energy is present, respond to it, and stay in relationship with that energy throughout the service — including the silent meditation. But when silence is measured using "tricks," worship leaders are checking out of the living presence of Silence moving in front of them.

Before I go further, here's a mini-credo statement: I believe that energy moves in us, between us, and around us. It’s as real as the flesh-and-blood people sitting in front of us: we’re energy beings (or, as writer Martha Beck puts it, “our bodies are electrical devices made of meat.").

In case you’re about to fly the “but Unitarian Universalists are rational” flag, be advised that physicists and engineers have been observing energy’s mysterious effects since 1665 — they just call it names like injection locking and entrainment, a phenomenon exemplified by 32 metronomes giving up their individual rhythms and, in mere minutes, synchronizing perfectly (see sidebar).

As a minister, I don’t understand the mechanics of entrainment the way engineers do, but that's okay. What interests me more is energy's power, and our ability as worship leaders to be in relationship with that energy as directly as we’re in relationship with the people singing, moving, and praying in our pews.

A decade ago, an astute Worship Associate observed that every Sunday our people began silent meditation in stillness — but within about twenty seconds, the stillness rippled with bursts of shifting, coughing, and rustling. “It’s easy to get nervous and think it's time to end the silence,” she reported, “but I figured out that after they shift around, they’re finally comfortable for the real silence. If you wait, you can feel it spread throughout the sanctuary, and you can feel when it's time to end the silence.” (Thank you, Sara N., for teaching me this.)

And so, whenever I see a ministerial colleague share tips for “timing” the silent meditation in worship, my heart sinks a little. While I applaud the commitment to grow the silence for longer than ten seconds — our UU worship is so word-centered that silence offers crucial respite and balance — these tricks signal a lost opportunity to notice and respond to energy. By focusing on their trick (whether it’s an iPhone timer or silently singing a song to themselves), that worship leader is tuned into something separate from what’s happening among the People; they're removed from the living, rippling experience right under their noses.

Are we "electrical devices made of meat"? Are we individual metronomes, ticking out unique rhythms yet capable of merging into one great and Almighty tocking? The next time you lead silent meditation, take the risk of believing it's so... and see what happens.

About the Author

Erika Hewitt

Rev. Erika Hewitt (she/her) serves as the Minister of Worship Arts for the Unitarian Universalist Association. She also spends time on the road as a guest preacher, worship consultant, and wedding officiant....

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A person's torso and arms, outreached, holding a glowing light bulb.

32 metronomes synchronizing in under 4 minutes